Thursday, July 13, 2023


Seven Surprising Jewish Inventions of the 19th Century

Seven Surprising Jewish Inventions of the 19th Century

By Ken Spiro


The Jewish drive to innovate is as old as the Jewish people itself.  It started with Abraham, 3,700 years ago, when he introduced humanity to arguably the most transformative idea in history-one God and it continues until today.  We see it in Jewish Noble Prize winners who account for 22% of the total since 1901 despite being only .2% of the world’s population and we see it in the “Start-Up Nation” – Israel, the most innovative country per capita in the world.  It has always been there, but for many centuries it was much more difficult to see. Exile, persecution, and discrimination suppressed the innovative spirit of the Jewish people for centuries, but it never disappeared.

The emancipation of Jews in Europe began in the late 18th century with the passage of laws granting Jews civil rights and legal equality with other citizens. These laws granted Jews the right to practice their religion, to work in most professions, and to own property. The process of emancipation was gradual, and in some countries, such as Germany where emancipation began after the Napoleonic wars in 1812, it was not completed until the late 19th century.  Jews were finally allowed to enter professions, study in universities and engage in trades that had previously been closed to them. This newfound freedom unleashed a wave of creative energy and entrepreneurial spirit among Western European Jews, leading many of them to pursue ambitious projects and inventions.

The 19th century saw a surge in innovation and invention, with many world-changing ideas and technologies being created. Germany was particularly well-represented in this field, producing some of the era’s most influential inventors. While Germany is known for its many great inventors, what is less well-known is the significant number of German-Jewish inventors who made important contributions to the world. Here are seven that you have probably never heard of.

One of the most influential German-Jewish inventors of the 19th century was Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (1856-1894), the scientist who first proved the existence of electromagnetic waves. His work laid the groundwork for the development of wireless communication, and he is widely regarded as the father of modern radio. Hertz-the unit of frequency for sound waves derives its name from him.

Karl Wilhelm Otto Lilienthal (1848 –1896) was a German pioneer of aviation who became known as the "flying man". Lilienthal began experimenting with gliders in 1891 and was the first person to make well-documented, repeated, successful flights with gliders.  He was also the first person to control the flight path of a glider by changing the angle of the wings, using a hip cradle and a tail rudder. He set a world record with a flight of 225 feet in 1896. Lilienthal's legacy is still seen today in modern aviation. He designed and built many different types of gliders, all of which were used in the development of modern aircraft.

Siegfried Marcus was another influential German-Jewish inventor and is credited with inventing the first automobile powered by an internal combustion engine. His designs and prototypes were developed between 1864 and 1888. He was the first to use a carburetor and the electric spark plug, and he developed a four-stroke engine. He also patented several improvements to the internal combustion engine, making it more efficient and reliable. His inventions had a great influence on the development of the modern automobile.

Emile Berliner (1851 –1929) was a German-born American-Jewish engineer and inventor who developed the first flat disc record, the gramophone record. He is also credited as the inventor of the microphone. Berliner also developed a system of sound-on-film recording that was the basis for the modern movie sound system. He was awarded over 50 patents in his lifetime including the rotary engine and a prototype helicopter.

Arthur Eichengrün (1867-1949) was a German-Jewish chemist and the inventor of aspirin, the world’s most commonly used drug.  He discovered the pain-relieving properties of acetylsalicylic acid in 1897. He also created a process for synthesizing the compound, which was later used in 1899 by the Bayer Company to commercially mass-produce aspirin.

David Schwartz (1817–1892) was a Hungarian-born German-Jewish engineer and inventor. He is most famous for his invention of the steerable, rigid airship (dirigible) and the use of a rigid metallic frame. His invention was an important step toward the development of modern airships, and he is credited with being the first to construct and fly an airship with a rigid frame.

Finally, there was Heinrich Gustav Magnus (1802–1870), a German-Jewish  chemist and physicist who made important contributions to the field of magnetism. He is credited with discovering the law of magnetism, and his work was instrumental in the development of the electric motor and generator. His research had a major influence on the development of electrical engineering.

There are many more than just these five, but the question is, why are they so unknown? There are multiple reasons. Despite emancipation, many German-Jewish scientists faced significant restrictions in 19th-century Germany. They were denied membership in professional associations, barred from teaching positions at universities and excluded from government laboratories.  Several of them suffered from poor health and died young before they could further develop, patent, or monetize their inventions. With the Nazi rise to power in 1933, many were simply erased from history.

Heinrich Hertz died at age 36 from a surgical complication and was unable to benefit commercially from his discovery.  The man who did that with the radio was Guglielmo Marconi.

Otto Lilienthal was killed in a glider crash at the age of 48, but the Wright brothers, who made the first controlled flight of a powered aircraft in 1903 cited Lilienthal as a major source of inspiration.

The Nazis removed Siegfried Marcus from German encyclopedias as the inventor of the modern car and replaced with the names of Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz who also played major roles in the development of the automobile.

Emile Berliner immigrated to the US at age 19. Although he lost a patent battle over telephone technology to Thomas Edison, he had a successful career as a researcher and entrepreneur.

The Nazis also made it impossible for Arthur Eichengrün to contest the claim of Felix Hoffman, another chemist who worked for Bayer, that he had invented aspirin,  Eichengrün  first wrote about being robbed of the credit for his discovery in a letter he sent from the Theresienstadt concentration camp in 1944. 

Today when we think of airships, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin comes to mind, but the idea originated with David Schwartz who dropped dead of a heart attack at 44.

These five German-Jewish inventors are classic examples of the Jewish innovative spirit. They made important contributions to the world in the 19th century. Their inventions changed the way people communicated, traveled, and generated electricity, and their influence can still be felt today. 


Jews and Booze-Jews and the Alcohol Business


Ken Spiro

The history of the Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is one of great complexity and diversity. Jews have been present in this region since the Middle Ages, and have had a large impact on the development of the region’s economy, culture, and religious life. The earliest known presence of Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth dates back to the year 966 when Jews were granted religious and other freedoms by Duke Mieszko I. These freedoms would continue to be extended and expanded throughout the Middle Ages. During this time, Jews were able to live in relative peace and prosperity, and the Jewish community in the region grew steadily. In the 14th century, Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were granted additional rights and privileges by King Casimir III, including the right to own property and to engage in trade. This period saw a large influx of Jewish immigrants, many of whom were fleeing persecution in other parts of Europe. This influx of immigrants led to a rise in the size and influence of the Jewish community in the region. The 16th century was a period of great religious and social upheaval in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. During this time, the Jewish population was subject to increasing persecution and discrimination, culminating in the Chmielnicki Uprising of 1648, in which Jews were massacred by Cossack forces. Despite this, the Jewish community in the region managed to survive and continued to make an important contribution to the economy and culture of the region. The 18th century saw a period of relative stability in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Jews had become an important part of the region’s economy and were granted additional rights and freedoms. This period also saw the emergence of the Hasidic movement, which had a profound influence on the region’s Jewish culture. The 19th century saw the emergence of a powerful nationalist movement in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which led to increased persecution of the Jewish population. In addition, the region was subjected to a series of partitions by its neighboring empires, which further disrupted the Jewish community. Despite this, many Jews managed to remain in the region and continue to contribute to its economy and culture. The 20th century brought further hardship to the Jews of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The region was overrun by Nazi forces during World

The history of Jews as middlemen in European civilization is a long and complex one. Jews have had an important presence in Europe since ancient times, and their unique role as middlemen has allowed them to occupy a unique space in European society. For centuries, Jews have been the link between the East and the West, providing goods, services, and knowledge to both sides of the continent. In the Middle Ages, Jews were the primary financiers, merchants, and traders between the two regions. This allowed for the exchange of goods, ideas, and culture between the two regions. Jews were also the go-between in the Renaissance, providing goods and services from the East and introducing new technologies from the West. The Jews’ role as middlemen also allowed them to become the primary financiers of the aristocracy in many European countries. Jews provided loans to royalty and the wealthy, often taking advantage of their advantageous positions and charging high-interest rates. This allowed them to amass wealth and influence, although it also made them the target of religious persecution and anti-Semitism. The Jews’ role as middlemen also allowed them to become the primary financiers of science and technology in Europe. Jews were often the only ones who had access to the latest scientific and technological developments, which they then brought to Europe. This allowed them to become a driving force in the industrial revolution, and their expertise in finance and banking helped create the modern banking system. The role of Jews as middlemen in Europe has been both beneficial and detrimental. On the one hand, they have provided a critical link between the East and the West, allowing for the exchange of goods, ideas, and culture. On the other hand, their privileged positions have made them the targets of religious persecution and anti-Semitism. Despite these difficulties, Jews have managed to remain an important part of European society and culture, and their role as middlemen continues to be an integral part of European civilization.

The economic role of Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was of great importance to the overall economy of the region. Jews played a significant role in the development of the economy of the Commonwealth, particularly in the areas of trade, banking, and manufacturing. Jews were an integral part of the economic life of the Commonwealth from the Middle Ages. Jews were among the first to engage in international trade, particularly with the Hanseatic League. Jews were also involved in the development of the banking system, which allowed for a much more sophisticated and efficient system of credit. Jews were also involved in the manufacturing industry, particularly in the area of textiles. Jews were responsible for the importation of raw materials, as well as the production of finished goods. This allowed for the development of a strong manufacturing sector in the Commonwealth, which allowed for the growth of the economy. In addition to the manufacturing and banking industries, Jews were also involved in the retail sector. Jews established many shops and stores throughout the Commonwealth, selling a wide variety of goods. These stores allowed for the development of a strong consumer base, which was essential to the growth of the economy.

Jewish innkeepers in Eastern Europe played an important role in the economic and social life of their communities. As travelers, merchants, and tradespeople moved through the region, these innkeepers were often the first people they met. They provided a crucial service to travelers, providing places to stay and often acting as a link between travelers and the local community. Innkeepers had to be knowledgeable about the changing political and economic situation in each country, so they could decide whether to accept or reject guests. This could lead to dangerous situations, as they could be targeted by those seeking to harm them or their guests. They had to be flexible and shrewd business people, as they had to make quick decisions to ensure the safety of their guests. Innkeepers often had to work long hours and provided services such as cooking and cleaning. They had to be excellent hosts, providing a warm and welcoming atmosphere to their guests. They had to be knowledgeable about their local area and be able to provide advice about where to go and what to do. Innkeepers were also a vital source of information for Jewish communities. They often provided news from other parts of the region and could give updates on the political situation in different countries. They could also provide advice on how to deal with local authorities or how to find safe passage for those fleeing persecution. Jewish innkeepers in Eastern Europe were an essential part of their communities. They provided a vital service to travelers and helped the Jewish community to stay safe and informed. They may not have always been popular, but they were a vital part of the social and economic life of the region.


The history of Jews in the alcohol business in Poland is a complex one that spans centuries and has been shaped by the shifting tides of political and religious forces. Jews have been involved in the production of alcohol in Poland since at least the early 17th century. The earliest known Jewish distiller in Poland was named Avram Ettinger, who began producing vodka in 1630. During the 18th century, Jewish distillers began to gain prominence in the alcohol industry, as the Polish government granted them the right to distill spirits. In the 19th century, Jewish distillers began to expand their businesses, creating new brands and styles of vodka. The 20th century brought with it a dramatic shift in the alcohol industry in Poland. In 1938, the Nazi regime implemented a ban on all Jewish businesses, including alcohol production. This ban remained in place until 1945, after which some Jews were able to reestablish their businesses. However, the Polish government soon implemented a number of anti-alcohol measures, including high taxes and restrictions on production. This caused many Jewish distillers to leave the alcohol business. By the 1990s, the Polish alcohol industry had become largely privatized, and many Jews returned to the alcohol industry. This time, however,

The history of Jews in the alcohol business in Poland is a long and complex one. Jews have been involved in the production and sale of alcohol in Poland for centuries, and their role in the industry has been both significant and controversial. The first Jews to be involved in the alcohol industry in Poland were likely Jews from Germany or the Austro-Hungarian Empire who moved to Poland in the late 17th century and began to work as tavern owners, distillers, and brewers. These early entrepreneurs were often subject to restrictions and taxes imposed by local authorities, but nonetheless made the most of their opportunities. Jews continued to be involved in the production and sale of alcohol in Poland throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and by the early 20th century they had become major players in the industry. The Jewish population of Poland was decimated during the Holocaust and with it the Jewish role in the alcohol industry. After the war, Jews were largely excluded from the alcohol industry, and the production and sale of alcohol came to be dominated by the state. Despite this, a few Jews managed to remain in the alcohol industry in Poland and slowly rebuilt their businesses, eventually becoming successful entrepreneurs. Today, the Jewish role in the alcohol industry in Poland is still significant, though much more subdued than it was before the Holocaust. While there are still a few Jews running their own businesses, the majority of the industry is now dominated by larger companies. Nonetheless, the contribution of Jews to the Polish alcohol industry is still remembered and respected.


The history of Jews in the alcohol business in Poland is a long and complex one. For centuries, Jews were among the most important producers and sellers of alcohol in the country. In the late 1800s, Jews began to dominate the alcohol business in Poland. They controlled the production, transportation, retail sale, and importation of alcohol. Jews held a monopoly on the production of vodka, and by the early 20th century, there were more than 200 distilleries in the country owned by Jews. Jews also owned numerous pubs and taverns, and served as wholesalers for alcohol distribution. This dominance of the alcohol business meant that Jews played a major role in the Polish economy. However, Jews faced significant obstacles in the alcohol business. In the late 1800s, anti-Jewish laws were enacted that restricted the sale of alcohol to Jews. Jews were also excluded from certain professions, such as distilling and brewing. Despite these challenges, Jews continued to play a major role in the alcohol business in Poland. In the 1930s and 1940s, the situation changed drastically. The Nazi occupation of Poland in 1939 led to the mass murder of Jews. Many of the Jewish-owned alcohol businesses were destroyed, and Jews were forced to flee the country


The history of Jews in the alcohol business in Poland dates back to the early 19th century. Jews began to participate in the alcohol industry in Poland after the partition of the Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth in 1772. The Jews who had been living in the area for centuries were suddenly subjected to the strict regulations of the partitioning powers. Under the Prussian partition, Jews were not allowed to own land or businesses but were able to work in the alcohol industry as distillers and brewers. This allowed Jews to move into the alcohol business and to become the main producers of spirits in Poland. In the late 19th century, the Polish economy began to improve, and Jews were able to move into a variety of businesses, including the alcohol industry. Jewish-owned distilleries and breweries flourished throughout the country, producing vodka, beer, and other spirits. Jews also owned and operated many of the taverns in Poland, and the Jewish-owned taverns became popular destinations for locals and travelers alike. In the early 20th century, the Jews of Poland continued to dominate the alcohol industry. In the 1920s, nearly half of all distilleries and breweries in Poland were owned by Jews. Jews also held important positions in the industry, such as distillers, brewers, and tavern keepers. Despite their success, the Jews of Poland were still subject to discrimination and prejudice. The rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s led to increased persecution of the Jews in Poland, which included restrictions on their businesses. Many Jews were forced to give up their businesses or were deported. Despite the hardships, the Jews of Poland continued to participate in the alcohol industry. After the war, many Jews returned to their businesses and continued to produce quality alcohol. To this day, the Jews of Poland continue to play an important role in the country's alcohol industry.

The history of Jews and alcohol production during the Prohibition era in the United States is an interesting one. During this period, Jews were an integral part of the illegal alcohol industry. Despite the fact that it was illegal to manufacture, transport, and sell alcohol, Jews still found ways to do so. It is estimated that Jews comprised about 10% of the illegal alcohol industry during prohibition, which was a significant portion considering their population in the country at the time. Jews were involved in all aspects of the industry, from distilling and brewing to smuggling, bootlegging, and retailing. In addition to their roles as distillers, brewers, and retailers, Jews also provided crucial financial support to the industry. Jewish financiers were instrumental in providing the capital needed for bootleggers to purchase equipment and supplies, as well as for transporting the alcohol across state lines and overseas. The Prohibition era saw a significant increase in organized crime, and Jews were heavily involved in this as well. Jewish gangsters such as Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky, and Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel played a major role in the illegal alcohol industry. These and other Jewish gangsters used their influence to control the flow of illegal liquor, as well as to gain political and financial power. The Prohibition era was a difficult time for many Jews, and it led to increased anti-Semitism. But despite the challenges and dangers, Jews were able to make a successful living in the illegal alcohol industry. They provided much-needed financial support to the industry and helped to make it a lucrative business. While the Prohibition era is now a distant memory, the contributions of Jews to the illegal alcohol industry remain an important part of its history.

The history of Jewish gangsters and alcohol production during the Prohibition era in America is an interesting one. During the period from 1920 to 1933, the US government passed a constitutional amendment that made the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages illegal. This created a lucrative criminal enterprise for organized crime, and some of the most famous and powerful gangsters of the era were of Jewish descent. Alcohol had been a major part of the American economy for centuries, so the passing of the Prohibition Amendment was a major disruption. But as is often the case with disruption, opportunity soon followed. Jewish gangsters in major cities like New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia were quick to capitalize on the chance to make a profit by illegally distilling and selling alcohol. They utilized the expertise and contacts of their immigrant communities to create an underground network of alcohol production and distribution. This network soon spread across the country, providing drinkers with illegal liquor in a variety of forms, from homemade moonshine to smuggled-in scotch. The Prohibition era also saw a rise in Jewish gangsters with a deep interest in the production and sale of alcohol. Men like Arnold Rothstein, Meyer Lansky, and Moe Dalitz had a hand in many of the largest bootlegging operations of the day. They utilized their connections to organized crime to create vast networks of illegal alcohol production and distribution. Rothstein, for example, is credited with single-handedly creating the modern underworld. He was known for his ruthless business practices and for his close ties with some of the most powerful mobsters of the era. The Prohibition era was an important part of Jewish gangster history, and it was a period of great innovation. Jewish gangsters and bootleggers were able to utilize their skills and contacts to create a vast illegal alcohol production and distribution network. This network helped to keep the country supplied with illegal alcohol during the Prohibition era, and it paved the way for some of the most famous and powerful organized crime figures of the 20th century.

Sam Bronfman was born in 1892 in Russia. He and his family immigrated to Canada in 1904, where he quickly established himself as a successful businessman. By the 1920s, he had become a millionaire, and he used his wealth to acquire a number of businesses, establishing the Seagram Distilling Company as the cornerstone of the Bronfman business empire. Seagram was one of the largest liquor companies in the world, selling its products in more than 40 countries.

The Bronfman family is a well-known Canadian family that made its fortune in alcohol and banking. The family’s roots trace back to Yechiel Bronfman, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who settled in Montreal in 1908. His sons, Sam and Harry, founded the Distillers Corporation Limited in 1928 and grew it into one of the world’s largest alcohol companies. They then acquired the Joseph E. Seagram & Sons in 1928, making it the largest distiller in the world. The Bronfman family is responsible for creating, distributing, and promoting many of the world’s most popular alcoholic beverages, including Crown Royal, Chivas Regal, and Seagram’s Seven Crown. The company’s success can be attributed to the brothers’ innovative business practices, such as their focus on marketing, brand building, and product diversification. The Bronfmans, however, are also known for their involvement in the illegal (and sometimes violent) activities of the alcohol trade during the Prohibition era. During this time, the Bronfmans were accused of smuggling and bootlegging alcohol into the United States and Canada. While the brothers were never convicted for these activities, their involvement in the illegal alcohol trade is well documented.

Sunday, February 05, 2023


The Jewish Atomic Empire

The little-known story of the Jewish impact on nuclear energy

By Ken Spiro

Unlike the ancient Greeks or Romans, the Jewish people have never been into building physical empires. Demographically they have always been one of the smallest peoples on the planet - stateless for much of their history. Yet despite being tiny, stateless, and powerless, the Jewish people have been remarkably impactful and transformative in so many ways.  The true Jewish influence has always been through ideas and innovation that have transformed the world.

This disproportionate impact started with Abraham, the founding father of the Jewish people, 3,700 years ago in what is today Iraq, when in a world full of idol worship, he chose to reconnect humanity to the idea of one God and an absolute God-given standard of morality.   Ethical monotheism, as it is often called, is certainly the first, most transformative and impactful of all ideas that the Jews brought to the world, but it’s hardly the last.  Since the time of Abraham onward, the Jewish people have continued to leave their mark on the world in so many areas besides just religion and morality.

A great, modern example of Jewish innovation is in the entertainment industry.  In the early 20th century Jews were the driving force behind the creation of the motion picture industry. MGM. Warner Brothers, Paramount, Columbia Pictures, and 20th Century Fox were all founded by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe-refugees from Czarist Russian persecution. (1) Hollywood may be one of the only Jewish Empires in history, but there is another modern example of a Jewish “empire,” less known, but certainly more impactful: nuclear fission.

For better or for worse, nuclear Fission (The process in nuclear physics in which the nucleus of an atom splits into two nuclei thus enabling both nuclear energy and the atomic bomb.) has been one of the greatest scientific discoveries of all time unleashing immense power for both energy and destruction. The number of Jews involved in splitting the atom in the 20th century is truly staggering. 

The term itself, “nuclear fission,” was coined in Germany in 1939 by a female physicist named Lise Meitner, but being both a woman and Jewish (She fled to Sweden to escape Nazi persecution and continued her research in Stockholm) she was denied credit for her research which was given solely to her fellow German researcher, Otto Hahn, who later received the Nobel prize for his work.

In the first half of the 20th century, Germany was the world leader in science and innovation and once the Nazis came to power in 1933, they directed much of this German know-how toward their military-rocket technology and weapons of mass destruction.  It was precisely this fear that Germany would be the first country to get a nuclear weapon that led the Hungarian-Jewish physicist, Leo Szilard to convince the great Albert Einstein, who was a pacifist, (both were refugees from Nazi persecution living in the US) to co-write a letter to President Roosevelt urging him to start a nuclear research program in the U.S. and beat the Germans to the A-bomb.  This letter played a key role in convincing Roosevelt to launch “The Manhattan Project, ” America’s program to build an atomic bomb. (2)

The number of Jewish involved in the project was astounding-probably close to 90% of the scientist. Almost all of them were German, Hungarian, or Austrian scientist refugees from Nazi German persecution. The list included:  J. Robert Oppenheimer-Project director and nicknamed “The father of the atomic bomb,” Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Otto Frisch, Niels Bohr Felix Bloch, Hans Bethe, John von Neuman, Rudolf Peierls, Franz Eugene Simon, Hans Halban, Joseph Rotblatt, Stanislav Ulam, Richard Feynman, Eugene Wigner, and the list goes on.  One of the few prominent non-Jews involved in the project, Enrico Fermi, left Italy to save his Jewish wife from fascist persecution. There is little doubt that had the Nazis been more tolerant of Jews, Germany would have had an atomic bomb first.

Chaim Weizmann, himself a prominent chemist and Israel’s first president later wrote:

“Very few people … have any notion of the role which Jews have played in modern science, and particularly of their astounding share in the development of nuclear physics. … I have heard Einstein speak of ninety percent. … I am continuously struck by the utter disproportion of the Jewish contribution.” (3)

The is no question that these scientists realized the profound implications of creating such a weapon of mass destruction.  As Oppenheimer witnessed the first test detonation of an atomic bomb on July 16th, 1945, he quoted from Hindu Bhagavad Gita “Now I become death, the destroyer of all worlds,” yet he never expressed any regret about the Manhattan Project.  He like many others in the scientific and military communities recognized the urgency of getting the bomb before America’s enemies and realized that the war would have dragged on for far longer with far greater American casualties had the US military been forced to conquer Japan with conventional ground forces. 

In his farewell speech to Los Alamos scientists in November 1945, Oppenheimer summarized the necessity of the US creating the A-bomb: 

“…all over the world men would be particularly ripe and open for dealing with this problem because of the immediacy of the evils of war, because of the universal cry from everyone that one could not go through this thing again, even a war without atomic bombs. And there was finally, and I think rightly, the feeling that there was probably no place in the world where the development of atomic weapons would have a better chance of leading to a reasonable solution, and a smaller chance of leading to disaster, than within the United States.”

The Jewish people’s relationship with the atom didn’t end with the Manhattan project:

-David Lilienthal was appointed the first chairman of the United States Atomic Energy Commission in 1946

-Edward Teller and Stanislav Ulam created the hydrogen bomb in 1952

-Admiral Hyman Rickover was the architect of the Polaris Nuclear Submarine fleet in 1954.

The innovative and transformative impact of the Jewish people extends well beyond the entertainment industry and the atom bomb.   The Jewish people are just .2% of the world’s population yet Jews have won 22% of all Nobel prizes since 1901 (4) and little Israel, the Jewish State, has the largest number of startups per capita in the world.  This disproportionate impact has been noticed by many, including British historian Paul Johnson:

  “For the Jewish impact on humanity has been protean.  In antiquity, they were the great innovators in religion and morals.  In the Dark Ages and early medieval Europe, they were still an advanced people transmitting scarce knowledge and technology…Breaking out of the ghettos, they once more transformed human thinking, this time in the secular sphere.  Much of the mental furniture of the modern world to is of Jewish fabrication.” (5)         

Jews do not have a monopoly on innovation and not all Jewish “contributions” have been positive, but given how small and how persecuted the Jewish people have been throughout history, it begs the question why?  American sociologist, Ernest van den Haag asked the same question:

“The Jews have invented more ideas, have made the world more intelligible, for a longer span and for more people than any other group.  They have done this indirectly, always unintentionally, and certainly not in concert, but never less comprehensibly...In a world where Jews are only a tiny percentage of the population, what is the secret of the disproportionate importance the Jews have had in the history of Western culture?”

From Abraham onward, Jews have consistently manifested certain personality traits that have driven them to question and look at the world in a different way. They seem to possess traits in their collective “spiritual DNA” that have always driven them to challenge excepted norms, think outside the box, and create and innovate.  As strange as this may sound, it seems to be the most logical explanation especially since so many of the most innovative Jews, including most of the scientists who worked on The Manhattan Project, had little or no Jewish education and no substantial connection to Judaism.  Most were Jews by birth and nothing more yet “thou shalt innovate” was still deep in their core.

Perhaps, Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks said it the best:

“To be Jewish, to be a child of Abraham is to have the courage to be different, to challenge the idols of the age, whatever the idols and whichever the age.” (7)



(1)     For more on this topic see:  An Empire of Their Own – How the Jews Invented Hollywood – Neal Gabler

(2)    In 1954, a year before his death, Einstein said to his old friend, Linus Pauling, "I made one great mistake in my life—when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made; but there was some justification—the danger that the Germans would make them.” Clark, Ronald W. (1971). Einstein: The Life and Times. New York: Avon Books

(3)    Tablet Magazine, November 9, 2022. Imagining a Jewish Atom Bomb, Or Rabinowitz & Yehonaton Abramson


(5)    -Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews

(6)    Ernest van den Haag, The Jewish Mystique

(7)    Covenant and Conversation-The Heroism of Ordinary Life, 5768 

Sunday, January 22, 2023


                                The Four Questions of Hannukah

Ken Spiro – December 2022


        -Is there a reason why Hanukkah and Christmas happen at the same time of  the year? 

 Growing up as a young Jewish kid in New York with a very limited after-school, Hebrew school education, I came up with my own theory as to why Hannukah and Christmas always fall out aroundthe same time in December. By the age of 9, I figured out that smart rabbis must have thought that if    Jewish kids saw Christian kids getting presents and they didn’t get presents too, they might not stay Jewish. An interesting theory, even if it was far from the truth. 

The reality is very different. As for the date of the holiday, the Talmud explicitly states:  

        “The Sages taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev, the days of Hanukkah are eight.”  (1) 

  The Book of the Maccabees, which tells the story of Hannukah, also     mentions the exact same date:

“Early in the morning of the 25th day of the ninth month which is the month of Kislev...they [the priests] rose and offered sacrifices, as the law directs, on the new alter of burnt offerings which they had was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals...So they celebrated the dedication of the alter for eight days...” (2)


So Hannukah REALLY did happen in the month of Kislev, which always falls out around December and which are, in the northern hemisphere, the shortest days of the year.  The question is, why is Christmas also in December?


The connection of Christmas (the traditional day of Jesus’s birth) to the same time of year happened sometime in the 4th century C.E. when the early church fathers fixed the date as December 25th, but there is no reference to this date in the Christian Bible and there is much historical speculation as to why this date was chosen.


  One possible explanation is that much of Christian ritual has its origins in the paganism of the Roman Empire.  Late December, which the Romans also recognized as the Winter Solstice was traditionally a time of several major pagan holidays-Saturnalia-Celebrating Saturn, the god of agriculture and also that of Sol Invictus/Helios-the sun god.  It could well be that the early church fathers deliberately placed Jesus’s birthday in December to de-paganize the season and give it a Christian ” flavor “and focus.


2-Why isn’t the Book of the Maccabee’s in the Hebrew Bible?


There are actually 8 separate works that have the title Book of the Maccabees.   By far, the best-known books are Maccabees 1 and 2. Maccabees 1 was written in Hebrew by a royal chronicler of the Hasmonean Dynasty (The Hasmonean Dynasty is the family of the Maccabees) sometime in the late 2nd century BCE and Maccabees 2 was probably written in Greek by a Jew living in Egypt, also around the same time.  We do not have the original Hebrew version of Maccabees 1 nor the original, unabridged version of Maccabees 2.


Both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches consider the Books of the Maccabees to be canonical (included in the list of sacred books officially accepted as genuine.) and are included in their versions of the Bible.  The question is why doesn’t Judaism consider these books to be holy?


Jewish tradition teaches that the different books that comprise the Tanach-the twenty-four books of the Hebrew Bible, designated as holy - were compiled by the Men of the Great Assembly (the 120 spiritual leaders who led the Jewish people approximately 2,500 years ago during the Babylonian Exile). Two criteria were used by these great sages to decide which books to include in the Bible:


1-The book had to be authored by a prophet

2-The book had to contain a message relevant for all time.


All the books of the Maccabees were written centuries after the completion of the Hebrew Bible and none of the authors of any of these books meet the above criteria. While the books of the Maccabees are a tremendous source of information and even inspiration, they are not considered by Judaism to be holy.


3-What happened to the Maccabees?


The story of the Maccabees is not only one of great heroism and sacrifice but also one of corruption and tragedy.  The five sons of Matisyahu (Mattathias) led a struggle against the Greeks that lasted for 25 years. During this protracted conflict, four of the five brothers either died in battle or were murdered.


The sole surviving brother, Simon, finally gained independence from the Greeks and established a dynasty, known as the Hasmonean Dynasty that would last for 103 years. For about a century Israel had independence and Simon’s descendants assumed the roles of high priests and rulers of Israel.  As descendants of Moses’s brother, Aaron, they could lay claim to the priesthood, but they had no right to kingship as that position could only be claimed by a descendant of King David.


Tragically, later Maccabean rulers not only became corrupted by their power but ended up persecuting the rabbinic leadership that their ancestors had sacrificed their lives to preserve. Internal power struggles within the family eventually degenerated into civil war which opened the door to  the Roman conquest of Israel in 63BCE and ultimately the end of the Hasmonean in 37BCE when the Romans made Herod the Great the king of Israel.


Coming from non-Jewish ancestry, Herod had even less claim to kingship than the Maccabees. To compensate for his lack of legitimacy Herod married the last surviving Maccabean female, Miriam. Obsessively paranoid, jealous, and impulsive, the historian Josephus writes that Herod eventually had her executed. He also put to death the two children that she bore him as well as Miriam’s brother, the high priest, Aristobulus. And so, the Maccabees ceased to exist. (3)


The Talmudic account of the end of the Hasmonaeans differs in that it doesn’t mention Herod’s marriage to Miriam or her murder, but rather that the last Maccabean female committed suicide rather than marrying Herod. (4) Regardless of which version you choose to follow the family of the Maccabees came to a tragic end over 2,000 years ago.  The Talmud concludes:


Whoever says that he is from the household of the Hasmoneans is surely a slave.” (5)


4-Why do we focus on the small miracle of the oil?  Wasn’t the military victory a far greater miracle?


There is only one very short reference to Hannukah in the Talmud:


“When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the Sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessings.”


The military victory of tiny Israel over superpower Greece was certainly a more impressive achievement, but the symbolism of the light of the menorah goes to the heart of the true victory:


  Hannukah was history’s first religious/ideological war-It was paganism’s battle against humanity’s only monotheistic faith. The Greeks tried to destroy not Jews but Judaism.


Despite the beauty and sophistication of Greek culture, their objective was to snuff out the light of Judaism.  With that in mind, we now understand why it’s truly fitting to focus on the miracle of the oil and not the military victory. The military victory gained Israel brief independence, but that didn’t last long.  The Hannukah lights that continue to shine brightly during the darkest time of the year truly represents the real miracle-The survival of a faith and a people and the power of that people’s faith to transform humanity and truly bring light to the world.





(1)    Babylonian Talmud,  Shabbat 21:b

(2)    I Maccabees 4:52-56

(3)    Josephus The Jewish Wars

(4)    Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 3:b

(5)    Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 70:b


Wednesday, September 14, 2022


                                                        Jews and Jamaica

Ken Spiro-August 2022

When you think about Jamaica, what generally comes to mind is reggae music, Bob Marley, beaches, palm trees, and maybe a few other things, but not “Jews.” Surprisingly, the Jewish connection to Jamaica is very old and very interesting. But before we can talk about Jews in Jamaica, we have to rewind our story to Spain in 1492.

When you hear the date 1492, especially if you are from the U.S., what usually pops into your head is Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World, but 1492 is also the year of one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history-the expulsion from Spain.  These two events are actually  very much connected.

July 31st, 1492 was the date set by Ferdinand and Isabella, the king and queen of Spain, for all Jews to either convert to Christianity or leave the country. On that date, the Jewish community of Spain, which had flourished for 780 years, came to an end.  It is estimated that about half the Jews converted and stayed with many- known as Conversos, Marranos or Bnei Anusim (Hebrew for “the children who were forced”) - secretly and at great risks, continuing to practice Judaism while an equal number left the country.  Many went to Portugal where they were all forcibly baptized five years later.  Immediately after the July 31st deadline, Columbus, who was very possibly of Jewish ancestry, set sail on three ships with 88 crew (five of whom were Jewish) in search of a westerly route to the Far East. Two months later, on October 12th, 1492, he stumbled upon the Bahamas and opened up the Americas for European colonization.  Part of the reward that Columbus received for his discovery was the Island of Jamaica.

Columbus’s accidental discovery of the Americas opened up a massive new world for conquest, colonization, and fierce competition, primarily between Catholic Spain, Portugal, and France and Protestant England and Holland (which declared independence from Spain in 1581). It also opened up a new port of refuge for the persecuted and exiled Jewish refugees of the Iberian Peninsula.

Today North America remains the largest Diaspora community in the Jewish world, overwhelmingly populated by the descendants of Eastern European, Ashkenazi Jews who fled by the millions from Czarist Russia between 1882 and 1914.  Long before any Jews came to North America they first settled in the West Indies and South America and Sephardic Jews (“Sephardic” meaning from Spain) got there centuries before any Ashkenazim showed up.  The expulsion of 1492 and the hardships that followed, for those who remained in Spain and Portugal, were the primary reasons for the arrival of these first Sephardic Jews to the new world.

Back in Spain and Portugal, in the early 16th century, thousands of Jewish forced converts to Christianity, now known as “new Christians,” lived in constant terror of discovery at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. The Inquisition, which began in 1478, hunted down, arrested, and often tortured and murdered tens of thousands of new Christians on suspicion of secretly practicing their old faith and negatively influencing other new Christians.  It is estimated that more than 30,000 people, many of them Jews, were executed by the Inquisition, which did not officially end until 1834.

During the 16th century, fear of the Inquisition and a desire for religious freedom led many of these crypto-Jews (forced converts who continue to secretly cling to their faith) to flee Spain and Portugal for North Africa, Holland, the Ottoman Empire, and the New World.

The Americas proved to be an attractive option for these crypto-Jewish refugees.  Colonization opened up many economic opportunities and there was much greater freedom since these Spanish and Portuguese colonies were far away from the prying eyes of the Inquisition.  The oldest of these communities were located in Brazil, Suriname, Curacao, St Domingo, Barbados, and Jamaica.

Crypto-Jewish refugees from the Iberian Peninsula began to arrive in Jamaica very soon after Columbus’s voyage, probably around 1494.  They identified themselves as “Spanish” or “Portuguese”, not as “Jews” and settled in Kingston, Port Royal, Montego Bay, and other locations throughout the Island.  Columbus, who controlled the island, did not allow the Inquisition into Jamaica so while these crypto-Jewish refugees could still not openly- practice their faith it was much easier and safer to practice in secret in Jamaica than back in Spain. Economic opportunities were also abundant, especially in trading in sugar, vanilla, tobacco, rum, and gold.  The community prospered and grew in relative freedom.

The situation for the Jews of Jamaica improved dramatically when England, which was Spain’s arch-enemy, conquered the Island in 1655. The timing was perfect as Oliver Cromwell, who ruled England at that time, had just allowed Jews back into England 365 years after they were expelled by Edward I in 1290. The Jews of Jamaica could finally openly practice their faith.  After Cromwell, King Charles II confirmed the citizenship and the rights of the Jews of both Great Britain and the colonies including Jamaica.

The first synagogue in Jamaica was built in the latter half of the 17th century but was destroyed by an earthquake in 1692.  (Synagogues in Jamaica and the West Indies have a very unique feature:  wooden floors covered with sand.  There is much speculation as to the reason, ranging from a remembrance of the wandering in the desert after the Exodus from Egypt to commemorating the attempts by crypto-Jews back in Spain, living in fear of the inquisition, to muffle the sound of their footsteps while they prayed in secret.) As the population began to grow so did the number of synagogues scattered throughout the island.

The growing Jewish population in the 17th century helped turn Jamaica into a thriving trading center in the Caribbean and also a major launching point for raids against Spanish and Portuguese shipping. Jews such as Abraham Blauvelt worked as privateers (legally sanctioned by the British government to raid enemy ships as part of maritime warfare) while other Jews, like Moses Cohen Enrique, were actual pirates. The exact extent of Jewish pirate activity is much debated and likely exaggerated, but it certainly would have been sweet revenge for the Jews of Jamaica whose ancestors were so abused in the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century.   In the Hunt’s Bay Cemetery (There are 22 known Jewish cemeteries in Jamaica) there are seven gravestones with skulls and crossbones on them.

Ashkenazi Jews began arriving in Jamaica in the early 18th century and by 1710 approximately 20% of the population of Kingston, the largest city and today the capital, was Jewish.  The Jewish population reached its peak in the 1880s when 22,000 of the island’s 580,000 residents were Jewish, including four of Kingston’s mayors.

Jamaica achieved independence from Britain in 1962 and its first US ambassador, Neville Ashenheim, was Jewish. Political instability in the 1970s led to a mass exodus of Jews from the island and today only between 300 to 500 Jews remain.  The only synagogue still open (besides a Beit Chabad) is Shaare Shalom in Kingston, built in 1885.

One of the most fascinating connections between Jews and Jamaica is probably Rastafarianism- a religion and social movement that appeared in Jamaica in the 1930s that was much popularized by the Reggae musician Bob Marley.  While Jews had nothing to do with the founding of Rastafarianism, there is no question that Judaism, the Bible, Biblical themes and concepts - the Exodus narrative, etc. played a huge role in shaping Rastafarianism. The music of Bob Marley is laced with Biblical references and even direct quotes from the Bible so the next time you hear Marley singing “Zion train is coming our way” you will know that it already made a stop in Jamaica more than 500 years ago.

Monday, April 04, 2022


 Six Jewish Ideas That Have Transformed the World

By Ken Spiro - April 2022

If you were to stop the average person on the street and ask him or her what values are essential for the proper functioning of society, the vast majority would probably mention these five:

-Value of life


-Equality before the law


-Social responsibility

These values are so essential, basic, and obvious to us today that we might assume that they are innate in human consciousness and have always been part of society throughout human history.  You might be shocked to hear that in fact, these values were far from obvious in the ancient world, even amongst the most highly developed, sophisticated civilizations of antiquity.

To get a better understanding of how radically different were the values of the ancient world, let’s hop in our time machine and travel back a few thousand years.  No matter where on the planet we travel to in the ancient world, the contrast between then and now is quite unbelievable.

-Value of life – The right to life is certainly the most basic of all values, yet in the ancient world, it was shockingly absent.  Human sacrifice was commonplace as were blood sports like gladiators. The killing of newborn children (infanticide), was universally practiced as means of both population control and sex selection.

Here is an excerpt from a letter from a Roman citizen named Hilarion, written to his pregnant wife 2,000 years ago:

Know that I am still in Alexandria...I ask and beg of you to take good care of our baby son, and as soon as I receive payment, I will send it up to you. If you deliver a child [before I get home], if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl discard it... (1)

-Peace – When we look at how the world reacts with outrage at the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we see how unacceptable war has become in modern consciousness, yet this was hardly the case until relatively recently in history.

The ancient world was a place of constant battles and conquest- a world where heroes were the warriors who killed the most and greatest opponents and the only countries that weren’t conquered were those that were strong enough to fight off the conquerors.

-Equality before the law – Equality before the law is the single most fundamental principle of modern liberal democracy, yet for the vast majority of history, this principle was far from fundamental to the political systems of virtually every country and civilization on the planet. For most of human history, in most of the world especially in the highly-developed civilizations, a small group of privileged elites maintained a tight hold on virtually all wealth and power.  The average person was poor and powerless and even the greatest minds of antiquity saw no reason to change this.  The great Roman statesman, Cicero wrote:

What is called equality is really inequitable. For when equal honor is given to the highest and lowest-for men of both types must exist in every nation-this very “fairness” is most unfair, but this cannot happen in states ruled by their best citizens. (2)

-Education – Today free education and universal literacy are a given, but it was a very different story in the ancient world.  Poverty and the struggle for survival forced the majority of children to work from a young age, while deliberate government policy and the desire to control the population led to mass illiteracy for most of human history. While the rates of literacy have varied from place to place and time to time, historians estimate that, on average, until about 500 years ago, only about one in a thousand people could read!

-Social responsibility – Every developed country in the world has social welfare infrastructure to help those in need and there are countless international organizations that fight poverty, and disease, help countries in need and deal with natural disasters.  Almost all of these programs and institutions came into being in the last 200 years, before that time there was virtually nothing.  The philosopher Plutarch clearly expresses the contempt that those who had in the ancient world had for those who had nothing:

But if I gave you, you would proceed to beg all the more.  It was the man who gave to you in the first place who made you idle and so responsible for your disgraceful state. (3)

Even this cursory look at the ancient world shows, that compared to our standards today, it was a pretty brutal and callous world-even in the most advanced civilizations and our list of essentials values was basically absent.  So where do these values come from?

The British historian, Paul Johnson, gives us the answer:

Certainly, the world without the Jews would have been a radically different place... To them, we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human, of the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person, of the individual conscience and so of personal redemption; of the collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without the Jews, it might have been a much emptier place. (4)

To understand why the tiny Jewish people were able to have such a huge and transformative impact on the values of the world, we have to look at one more “idea.” All the previous values really come from this one “idea” and without it, we would have none of the others.  That “idea” is one God and one God-given, absolute standard of morality.  This concept, often described as “Ethical Monotheism,” has been history’s most transformative idea in terms of values and morality.

In the very beginning of the Book of Genesis, the Bile describes Humans as being made “in the image of God” – with a unique, higher spiritual soul.  In Hebrew the word is “Nishamah” and the moral implications of every person possessing this unique, God-given spark, this piece of the infinite are tremendous:

-If every person has this higher soul, then every human life has infinite value, which is why the Talmud states: “He who saves a life it is as if he saves an entire universe.” (5)

-If every human being has this divine spark within him or her, there is fundamental equality amongst all of us as the prophet Malachi states: “Have we not all one father?  Did not one God create us all?” (6)

-If we are made in God’s image, we have an obligation to emulate him... Deuteronomy 28:9 states: “…and you shall go in His ways.”  Just as God is kind and merciful, so too do we have an obligation to be kind and merciful.

John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers of America and the second president, summed it up beautifully when he wrote:

“... I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation.  If I were an atheist and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of another sect… I should still believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate for all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization… They have given religion to three-quarters of the globe and have influenced the affairs of mankind more, and more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern. (7)

The explanation as to how a tiny, exiled, persecuted and powerless people was able to shape the collective conscience of humanity is the topic for another discussion, but there is no question that ethical monotheism, first brought to the world by Abraham 3,700 years ago, has transformed the world.

 The Jews were the first people to break out of this circle, to find a new way of thinking and experiencing, a new way of understanding and feeling the world, so much so that it may be said with some justice that theirs is the only new idea that human beings have ever had.  But their worldview has become such a part of us that at this point it might as well have been written into our cells as a genetic code. (7)


(1) Stager, Lawrence E. “Eroticism and Infanticide at Ashkelon,” Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1991

(2) Cicero, Laws, XIII,35.

(3) Plutarch, Morals 235A

(4) Paul Johnson- A History of the Jews

(5) Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:22

(6) Malachi, 2:10

(7) Thomas Cahill, The Gift of the Jews, 1998)

(7)  Joh Adams-Letter to F.A, Van der Kemp, 1808

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